But as we got closer, he fingered the fabric and said dismissively, “Oh, that would wear really badly.” A striking chair in a delicate deep blue fabric was also rejected for practical reasons: “I have dogs, so that’s not happening.”
Another shopper stood and stared. “Didn’t I just see you on TV two hours ago?” he said as Mr. Norton passed.
“Yes, yes, that was me — thank you,” Mr. Norton replied briskly before checking the price tag of a low-slung mauve couch. “That is an interesting color, isn’t it?”
While we moved on, Mr. Norton turned to me and said, “It’s so funny. When I walked into the ‘Good Morning America’ building this morning, there were all these people there checking my ID and asking who I was and why was I there. Then after I had been on the show, and I came back out, they all asked me to take a selfie with them. They still didn’t know who I was, but they had seen me being interviewed and they knew I was famous, and that was enough.”
Mr. Norton had been on “G.M.A.” (and would later be on “The Rachael Ray Show” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”) to promote the United States publication of his first novel, “Holding,” a murder mystery set in a village in rural Ireland similar to the one Mr. Norton grew up in. With its tale of provincial life, gimlet-eyed spinsters and thwarted love — not to mention the discovery of a dead body — it feels almost like a Miss Marple mystery written by Colm Toibin.
Mr. Norton, who has drawn high ratings for almost 20 years, is the author of two best-selling memoirs, but this is his first novel.
Why a murder mystery?
“It’s a recognizable structure,” he said over lunch (a fried-fish sandwich and a glass of chardonnay) at ABC Cocina, where we went after he had bought a Frette duvet cover to replace the one he had bought 15 years earlier.
“You find a body. Then you find a second body. And then you go from there. And there is a reason to keep you reading. Even if it’s an awful book, you still keeping reading it to find out what happened.” (“Holding” is not an awful book. It is actually quite a good read, and received largely enthusiastic reviews when first published in Britain. It is also being made into a TV movie.)
The main character, P. J. Collins, a bumbling local sergeant with a serious weight problem, is an unlikely hero and an even more unlikely love interest. (Two of the other characters in the novel, both murder suspects, pursue a relationship with him.)
Sergeant Collins’s anguish over his bulk, and his constant rebukes to himself about how much he eats, feel awfully close to the bone, as it were. Was Mr. Norton fat as a child? “Mentally, yes,” he said. “I think everyone has a very dysfunctional relationship with food.”
But he said he was determined that P. J. not lose weight, as part of a happy ending: “That was not going to be his story.”
He added, “I have a very overweight friend, and she read the book. And I know she read it, because she texted me, ‘Have your book. Reading it!’ And she has never mentioned it again. And I have never mentioned it again. And I wonder if that’s the reason — because I’m describing a world that she knows very well and that she assumes I do not. But who knows? Maybe she just hated the book.”
The genesis of the plot came from a story his mother told him about an abandoned house in the Irish town of his youth, and the three unmarried sisters who lived there. “To be honest, to do that story justice, the book would have had to have been an almost ‘Remains of the Day’ kind of thing,” Mr. Norton said. “But I didn’t have the skill set to do that. So I decided to kill someone and turn it into a murder mystery.”
Becoming a fiction writer is the latest career move for someone who, with his talk show, TV specials, hosting gig for the Eurovision contest and even an “agony uncle” advice column in The Telegraph, exemplifies the word “workaholic.”
At the BBC, he earns a reported 900,000 pounds a year (roughly $1.17 million), which makes him one of the highest-paid stars in British television. The salary also caused a certain amount of eye rolling in British media circles recently, when the government-funded BBC was forced to disclose the salaries of its stars and it was revealed that there was a wide discrepancy between what the network paid its male and female employees.
That was not Mr. Norton’s most famous brush with the tabloid press, however. A few years ago, an ex-boyfriend gave an interview to a British newspaper in which he said that the two broke up because Mr. Norton “could drink up to four bottles of wine in an evening” and seemed to care more about his two dogs than him.
“That’s probably the only real kiss-and-tell I’ve been involved in; it was something, to feel really betrayed,” he said. “What’s good, of course, is that it makes you feel a lot better about the breakup. And the odd thing was, in Britain, it was almost like I planted that story, because of the amazing amount of good press I got from it. ‘Yeah, I like to drink and I like dogs.’ Those happen to be two very important things to the British people.”
Mr. Norton is now single and lives in an apartment in the Wapping neighborhood of London with Bailey, a Labradoodle and Madge, a terrier. (“The shelter named her Madonna, but I thought, ‘I can’t have a dog named Madonna,’ and so I changed it to Madge.”)
He seems content with that arrangement. “The reality is that, as you get older, the more fussy you become,” he said. “But the older you get, the less right you have to be fussy.” Or as he told one interviewer: “I would prefer to live alone than with towels that are folded incorrectly.”
Having caught the fiction bug, he is now working on his second novel — “a mystery, but not a murder mystery.”
But as our earlier stroll through the store suggested, maybe being an author isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For there, in the middle of the fourth-floor showroom, was a towering stack of used books, perhaps 300 in all, repurposed into a piece of decorative sculpture for someone with a high-ceilinged living room.
“That’s a lesson for any author,” Mr. Norton said. “You put all that effort into what you think is your life’s work, and it ends up as part of a decorative pillar in a furniture shop.”